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Essay On Are Students Overburdened

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We’re pleased to announce the winners of The Nation‘s fifth annual Student Writing Contest.
This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how their education has been compromised by budget cuts and tuition hikes. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-four states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Amanda Lewan of Michigan State University and Melissa Parnagian of Old Bridge High School in New Jersey. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive
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Some might think that all that you need in order to learn is a textbook, a worksheet and a teacher who explains to you how to do a math problem or puts notes on the board for you to copy. This seems to have been the mentality of the government officials who implemented such drastic cuts on the Cherry Hill school district. Their actions have curtailed not only our extracurricular activities but also essential courses we might need in order to lay the foundations for our future major. If you were to walk into our school right now, you would think you had stepped into a world ten years back in time—judging from the facilities which are available. Budget cuts have compromised my high school education in some painful ways: in the past year, we have not had a single field trip; our classes have been large and unruly; the SAT program has been minimized; and there are fewer athletic facilities.

Any high school student (and probably any college student) will tell you that learning is most enjoyable when interesting activities are implemented in the process. The classroom scenario can quickly become stale if it is not infused with a change of pace. For example, in English class, many students consider reading Shakespeare to be a laborious task. I remember struggling through Romeo and Juliet. But when we went on a field trip to see the play, it suddenly came to life: not only the plot but the appearance and demeanor of the characters and how they said their lines. I returned to the play with a fresh curiosity. But this year, we are reading Julius Caesar, with no field trip. No watching the conspirators hatch their plot, or Antony making his famous speech; the experience is not so rich, and we just won’t remember it.

Another thing that all students will tell you: learning is invariably affected by class size. Over this past year, we have been cramped, compressed against other students, barely able to move. In these conditions, your mind doesn’t even think about learning; you just wait there looking at the clock, desperate for the class to end so you can stretch your arms and legs and finally breathe! Needless to say, such large classes are difficult for a teacher to control, and of course students get a minimal amount of feedback on their work. It is a poor situation for students and teachers alike.

At the end of such days, I hoped I might be able to indulge my passion for soccer—to train, to play and, yes, to let off some steam. This was not only a form of recreation for me but also a way to get me focused, because after soccer practice I go home and study. But even this has been taken away: the board has also decided to cut many sports such as soccer, lacrosse, golf and field hockey.

At the end of this year in a rapidly dilapidating school environment, I was looking forward to using the summer to improve my SAT skills. But the SAT prep course has been reduced to four days. Four days in a summer vacation that is two-and-a-half-months long! How can we be expected to do as well as students from previous years, who had the benefit of taking the full course?

These are only a few of the ways in which my education has directly been compromised. But more important will be the long-term effects: Our lives as a whole are going to be impoverished; we will be less skilled, less proficient and less educated than the youth of other nations. This educational deficiency surely will have a detrimental impact on our state and our nation. An undereducated workforce and an undereducated populace can hardly get us out of this recession or make our nation competitive; nor can it create good citizens or strengthen our democracy. When the government disinvests in education, it is crippling the youth who are its highest hope for the future.

Students lack critical background skills

Writing is a complex task involving many component skills, some of which students may lack completely, some of which they may have only partially mastered. These skills involve, among other things:

  • Reading comprehension
  • Analytical skills
  • Writing skills, including:
    • writing mechanics: grammar, sentence structure, spelling, etc.
    • planning a writing strategy
    • communicating ideas clearly and concisely
    • constructing a reasoned, demonstrable argument
    • effectively marshaling evidence and using sources appropriately
    • organizing ideas effectively

When students lack skills in these areas, their writing may be unsatisfactory in multiple ways—from poor grammar and syntax to unclear organization to weak reasoning and arguments. Complicating matters is that students often lack the meta-cognitive skills to recognize the areas in which their prior knowledge and skills are insufficient—and thus which skills they need to work to improve.

Moreover, students may have learned bad habits in high school that they need to un-learn. For example, some students were taught in high school to avoid the first person in formal writing, and thus may use awkward grammatical constructions to avoid it.

Strategies:

A key challenge in helping students learn basic writing skills is doing so without overwhelming the students or overburdening yourself. Effective strategies thus involve (a) prioritizing which skills you value, (b) communicating those priorities (and your specific expectations) to students, and (c) giving students opportunities to practice and receive feedback. 

Use performance rubrics to break down the skills involved in writing.

Use a diagnostic pre-assessment to identify common writing problems.

“Scaffold” writing assignments.

Create multiple practice opportunities.

Use performance rubrics to break down the skills involved in writing.

Writing isn’t a single task; rather it involves many component skills (e.g. synthesizing information, articulating arguments, crafting sentences, engaging an audience). Furthermore, the nature of writing depends heavily on both the specific assignment (i.e., the purpose of the writing) and the conventions of particular disciplines. Developing clear grading criteria can help students learn to recognize the component tasks involved in particular kinds of writing and identify what they need to work on. Performance rubrics help to demystify the component tasks of writing.

Developing good performance rubrics is not easy. It requires the instructor to be extremely clear in articulating the objectives of the assignment as well as his/her own values vis-à-vis writing. While creating a high-quality rubric can involve an initial investment of time, instructors who have developed good rubrics generally find that they expedite the grading process and provide students with feedback that translates into better performance. 

Use a diagnostic pre-assessment to identify common writing problems.

Give your class an un-graded writing assignment early in the semester and use it to diagnose areas of weakness in student writing. A quick read-through of student writing should illuminate common writing problems (e.g., weak arguments, poor use of evidence, missing topic sentences, etc.). If the problems cluster in a few clearly defined areas, you might choose to address them in class.

If the problems are not ones you can or wish to address in class, you can point them out to students and/or direct students to appropriate resources, for example, Academic Development, the Intercultural Communication Center, or an on-line writing tutor.

“Scaffold” writing assignments.

Use assignments that break reading, analysis, and writing into component parts and give students practice developing mastery in each area, building gradually towards more complex, comprehensive writing tasks. For example, you might first ask students to summarize, in writing, the central argument of a reading and three pieces of evidence the author used to support it. At a second stage, you might ask students to write a critique of the argument in light of that evidence and alternative evidence. At a third stage, you might ask students to write an essay comparing two readings in terms of how compellingly the authors made their cases.

Create multiple practice opportunities.

Learning to write well requires considerable practice. However, many faculty members are—understandably—reluctant to assign a lot of writing because of the grading burden it imposes. Yet giving students more writing opportunities need not always entail more work for you. Here are some options to consider:

  • Have students read one another’s work and provide feedback to their peers in the form of “reader responses.” This not only relieves you of some of the grading burden, it provides students with the opportunity to develop editing and evaluation skills that they can apply to improve their own writing. Peer feedback is most effective when you give students specific instructions about what to look for and comment on. You can ask students to use the same performance rubric you use, or give them a set of questions to address, such as: Was the writing style engaging? Is there a clearly articulated argument? Is there good correspondence between argument and evidence? Are the ideas expressed clearly and unambiguously? What you ask students to focus on in a peer review, of course, depends on your discipline and your goals for the particular assignment.
  • Use “minimal grading,” or extremely targeted feedback for some assignments. For example, you might make it clear to students that on one assignment they will only receive feedback on the strength of their argument and evidence but not grammar and spelling. Alternatively, you might choose to focus on clarity, underlining clear or effective passages in blue and unclear or problematic passages in green, and limiting your feedback to that single dimension of writing. This not only makes the job of grading easier, it helps students focus on one aspect of their writing at a time. Once again, what you choose to emphasize in grading will depend on your learning objectives for particular assignments.
  • Assign more writing tasks of shorter length or smaller scope rather than fewer tasks of great length or large scope. This way, students get more opportunity to practice basic skills and can refine their approach from assignment to assignment based on feedback they receive.

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